Writing a Winning Application—Write To Excite

Funding News Edition: February 17, 2021
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You'll need to lay out a convincing case that your project can make a high impact in its field. Be explicit because reviewers cannot read your mind.

Credit: NIAID

We conclude our series with tips on creating a winning application by keeping its audience—your peer reviewers—in the forefront of your mind.

The guidance below is important for both investigator-initiated applications and applications submitted in response to a solicited notice of funding opportunity (NOFO); keep in mind, the NOFO through which you apply may give supplementary instructions that you’ll need to account for as well.

Organization, Organization, Organization

Let's start by acknowledging that your reviewers—your application's judge and jury—have day jobs.

By contributing their time, they do a great, and much appreciated, service to NIH by agreeing to peer review grant applications. For each review meeting, members of a review panel may evaluate more than 100 applications and will carefully read through those assigned directly to them. While you can expect your reviewers to take their role seriously, know that they have high expectations of you.

Make no mistake: reviewers will not likely excuse a poorly organized or otherwise unappealing application. It won't matter how elegant your science is if your reviewers can't find or understand information they seek.

NIH gives you broad guidelines for organizing the application, for example, including headers for each section of the Research Strategy. Beyond that, its organization is up to you.

But whatever path you choose, be sure to give your reviewers guideposts to your application. Here are some tips:

  • Make reading easy for the reviewers. Organize your application so they can readily grasp and explain what you are proposing.
  • At a minimum, use headers that reflect the application sections. Guide the reviewers with graphics as visual aids.
  • Add emphasis with bold or bold italics, but don't overdo it.
  • Label all materials clearly to make it easy to navigate through the application and find information.

Write clearly and concisely so that your application is easy to read and easy to understand. Carefully edit and proof the application for grammar and spelling.

And don't fill up all the white space just to gain a few extra lines of text. Instead, spend time editing useless words (see an "in order to"?—just "to" is enough) so you have the space to give your reviewers some visual breaks.

Be realistic about how long it can take to write and revise your application. We strongly advise that you give yourself plenty of time to submit so you can resolve electronic submission and validation issues that may arise. To learn more, go to Pass Electronic Validations.

In addition to the guidance we give you here, go to the NIH How To Apply—Application Guide website and follow all the Application Form Instructions, including font and page limits, formats, and rules for attachments and appendices, so you don't risk having your application returned without review.

Consider Your Audience

Although the entire review panel will score your application, not all will be experts in your field or be totally familiar with your science.

How to get through to them all? Write for both audiences: 1) your assigned reviewers who have expertise in your field and 2) the others who are experts in other fields.

In your application, balance the technical and nontechnical language. Keep the Specific Aims, Abstract, and Significance section less technical, and save the technical language for the Approach section.

You'll need to avoid obscure jargon and provide more background information to convey the significance and feasibility of your research to the "non-expert" committee members, especially in the parts they are most likely to read:

  • Specific Aims
  • Abstract
  • Significance section of the Research Strategy

Based on your knowledge of your reviewers' scientific perspectives, it's also a good idea to anticipate and address their questions about your project's significance and innovation.

You'll want to answer likely concerns proactively so they need not be brought up at the meeting. Discuss potential problem areas and possible solutions in the pitfalls and alternative approaches section of your application; however, don't overwhelm them with excessive detail.

Show the reviewers that you have thought deeply about your Research Plan. Sharpen the focus of your application to demonstrate a high likelihood of meaningful findings. Don't overshoot the mark by proposing too much and don't propose what you can't do. Reviewers will quickly pick up on the match between your research team and the proposed research. Be realistic and avoid an over-ambitious project, or one that lacks focus.

If you look at our Sample Applications & More, you'll see how the successful principal investigators who created those applications addressed these tips.

Try to get as many reviewers enthusiastic about your project as you can. Let them know why they should give you a competitive score by preparing a highly meritorious application that demonstrates that your research is unique and will make a difference in the field. Convince them to be your advocate and get them on your side.

Score With Impact

In the world of NIH funding, success requires impact. You'll need to lay out a convincing case that your project can make a high impact in its field. Be explicit because reviewers cannot read your mind. Don't assume they will be able to infer what you intend. Your burden here is higher when your application crosses multiple disciplines, so think carefully about what will be important to reviewers from each background needed to evaluate the application.

To arrive at the all-important overall impact score, reviewers use NIH's five review criteria—significance, innovation, approach, investigator, and environment.

Impact reflects both the importance of your research (significance and innovation) and its feasibility (approach, investigator, and environment).

When considering the review criteria, reviewers will look at different parts of your application, so you want to know where to cover your bases.

Significance, Innovation, and Approach correspond to sections of the Research Strategy.

Reviewers assess the investigator criterion largely from your biosketches and gauge environment from the Facilities and Other Resources and the Equipment attachments on the Other Project Information form of the Grant Application Package.

However, don’t underestimate the need for Letters of Support from collaborators. Reviewers will want to see that you have access to samples to conduct your experiments or that a collaborator will be performing activities such as critical testing in an animal model that you lack or conducting a particular technique with which you have limited experience.

Here are some items to contemplate so you can make sure your application leaves no doubts about significance and innovation:

  • Show you are aware of the opportunities and knowledge gaps in your field.
  • Highlight the significance of your research in the context of your field, long-term plans, and preliminary data.
  • While you will delve into significance in detail in that section, also think about highlighting significance in your Abstract and Specific Aims, especially if you think some of your reviewers will need this information to appreciate the importance of your research.
  • Explain your innovation: how your research is new and unique and can push the frontiers of your field's knowledge ahead.

Approach Boldly

While all the review criteria are important, NIH data show that scores correlate closest with your application's Approach section.

Don't skip critical details, especially when proposing nonstandard methodologies. Reviewers expect them, so include enough details that they can assess your experimental design and feel confident you are using appropriate methods to get the results you anticipate.

You also want to include enough background and preliminary data to highlight the context and significance of your plans. While you should carefully explain the preliminary results needed to establish impact, competence, and feasibility, avoid providing unrelated data unless they're needed to demonstrate your mastery of a particular methodology.

New investigators, be aware that you don’t necessarily need lots of preliminary data to make your application exciting. Instead, explain why your data is promising.

To reach your goal, do the following:

  • Show how your experiments will yield meaningful data that test your hypothesis.
  • Include details to show reviewers you understand and can handle a method, especially if you are new to the field or a new investigator.
  • Include a letter from an expert to serve as a guide for a particular method if needed.
  • Propose alternative experiments and approaches in case you get negative or surprising results.

Highlight Expertise and Resources

Make a strong case to your reviewers that your team can perform the research, and you have access to necessary resources.

While you will put the details in the Resources and Biosketches forms, also consider addressing any concerns you feel reviewers may have directly in the Research Strategy.

You'll also do well to make clear where you excel and what unique skills you and your team bring to the research.

Keep It All in Sync

An application is a complex system with interrelated information and parts, so be sure everything is in sync for people, money, resources, and time.

Check for accuracy and consistency, taking these steps:

  • Make sure your references and figures are placed and cited accurately.
  • Ensure that your figures and tables are large enough to read easily, graphs have labeled axes, and all figures have figure legends.
  • Check all factual information.
  • Then recheck all factual information.

To take stock of internal consistency, don't be shy about asking for editorial help from colleagues. Ask for their input on matters such as whether you need a certain figure or if a diagram clarifies what you're describing in one of your Specific Aims.

With positive feedback, there will likely be some negative comments as well. It's better to hear about them now than read about them in your summary statement, so use them to strengthen your application.

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